Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Young Adults in Custody: Time for Change?

The Prison Inspectorate’s scathing report on Feltham once again focuses attention on how best to accommodate young people in custody. For juveniles under 18 the time has come to remove them from the Prison system altogether. The Government is proposing  a creative and radical package of reforms for the juvenile secure estate;  a network of Secure Colleges outside prison  is surely the way forward for the small number of under 18s who cannot be dealt with in the community.

But what about young adults?  “Transforming Youth Custody” says nothing about the 18-20 year olds whose experiences of violence at Feltham B   prompted the Chief Inspector to question the viability of it being set aside for just young adult prisoners.

About 12,000 18-20 year olds received prison sentences last year with approximately 7,000 in custody at any one time. Most are held in dedicated Young Offender Institutions (YOI’s) but increasingly these establishments are being combined or even integrated into adult prisons. About a third of young men and all of the young women in the age group are now held in these dual establishments.

 The jury is out about whether integrated prisons for those aged 18 plus can provide a sufficient focus on the distinctive needs of young adults. The law does not permit under 21’s to share cells with older prisoners, but mixing wings in some establishments has led to reductions in assaults and other disruptive behaviour- a serious problem with this age group. But can they offer the constructive and purposeful regimes, therapeutic help and personal inspiration needed to enable young adults to put crime behind them? 

In Germany , in each of the lander , separate youth prisons accommodate all of those from 14-21 sentenced by the courts. Under 18’s and young women live in separate house blocks but take full part in the active daily programme of education , training and employment. Unlike many British prisons, almost no young people are found on the wings during the day with evenings and weekends filled with a wide range of recreation activities. The campus at Neustrelitz north of Berlin feels more like a further education college than a prison. Staff eat their lunch in a canteen alongside the trainees. In the UK meals are almost always taken in cells , with disruptive prisoners subject to the  what is sometimes disturbingly called “controlled feeding”.

The Prison Service in England and Wales acknowledges that even in a dedicated YOI, life for a young offender is not that different to prison life for adult prisoners. Staff in a YOI they admit “will not be able to give you much individual support, as there will generally be one member of staff for every ten young people.” Former Chief Inspector of Prisons Dame Anne Owers described young adults as a neglected and under -resourced age group, and whatever the shape of the establishments that hold them, the time is surely right for a renewed focus on identifying and meeting their needs in prison.

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